Tackling the issue
Published 01/04/2010 | 05:00
Rugby's tackle law may not necessarily be an ass, but it's certainly giving more and more of the hard-pressed spectators, coaches and players a significant pain there.
It is difficult to forget the furore that erupted during the Six Nations, when the normally mild-mannered Irish coach Declan Kidney publicly expressed a rage many others felt privately at IRB referees manager Paddy O'Brien for implementing a new tackle law interpretation during week five of the championship.
Munster coach Tony McGahan is one of the more cerebral coaches in the game but even he has had inordinate difficulty in maintaining contact with the accelerating developments regarding the interpretation of the new tackle law.
At the team's superb Ballykisteen Hotel this week, the squad's relative calm was shrouded in uncertainty by the seemingly liberal approach of the referee in their recent Magners League matches, in stark contrast to the sterner approach of two South African officials in Ireland's last two internationals.
Was McGahan able to offer any clarity? "I wish I could," he muttered beneath his breath. Earlier, as the Munster players trained, David Wallace was explaining to his fellow open-side flanker Niall Ronan the difficulties he had encountered wearing Ireland's green jersey.
But then Ronan later told us that, as far as he had noticed in Munster's red jersey, "I don't know if they're reffing it in the Magners League so it's all a bit up in the air".
Yesterday, as an ERC Board meeting convened to formulate their response, days before the quarter-finals of Europe's flagship competition, the Magners League effectively stated that they would not interfere with the refereeing practices that have taken place all year.
Meanwhile, the Guinness Premiership, featuring high-flyers Northampton Saints, Munster's Heineken Cup quarter-final opponents next week, have gone a step further than the IRB and imposed four new rulings in the tackle area after meetings between officials, referees and coaches last month.
Hence, the same law is being applied in three distinctly different ways in different competitions by different referees -- and not just on both sides of the hemisphere, but on both sides of the Irish Sea.
"As far as I know, we're still operating under the interpretation that has served its purpose in the competitions that we play in," is McGahan's perception of how the tackle area has been refereed in his side's most recent games.
Pity poor Wallace amongst others, who will have to revert back to his old ways just weeks after being forced to change tack so dramatically.
"As far as I know in this club, we haven't been informed of any change in interpretation of any rule," continued McGahan.
"The two referees we've had (in our recent matches), I've sensed that they are going on the old interpretation and throwing in some of the new interpretation. As I say, we haven't received any notification to say this is the way we're going.
"So really we're taking it week on week and talking to the referee before each game and asking him where he stands on that. We're obviously taking steps to make sure we're not surprised by anything, that if it does go to that we can cope with anything.
"But at this stage we have no official recommendations or direction to change the way we are approaching the breakdown, so we're still a little bit in the darkness, as most people are."
It all adds up to a mess and the players are once more pawns in a much bigger game being managed quite disastrously, chiefly by the IRB.
Even though disagreement may exist between backs and forwards, attack and defence coaches, traditionalists and modernists, all the players and coaches are demanding from administrators is consistency.
"Until the grey areas are sorted and all the refs are reffing the breakdown in the same way, the players are just left in limbo," says a clearly exasperated Ian Dowling. "I can understand the frustrations of back-rowers who are taught all the way up to do one thing, and now they have to do another.
"But if all the referees are on the same wavelength, it will make things much easier in the long run for all of us. It's something we're all going to have to adapt to in the future, but only once the referees are on the same page."
Magners League chief David Jordan yesterday insisted that his organisation had received no official communication regarding the tackle law, nor had it offered any official direction.
"We haven't had any get together on any particular aspect of any potential interpretations of the law," he said.
"We're operating under the interpretations we have done all season," he affirmed.
McGahan and Leinster coach Michael Cheika will only meet match official Roman Poite -- refereeing his first Magners League game -- for a few minutes prior to tomorrow night's kick-off.
What if the Frenchman indicates his desire to ruthlessly obey the new IRB edict? "You just need to adapt," sighs McGahan. "But that's every game and that was the same with the other interpretation anyway. Whoever is refereeing, and what interpretation they are working with, it differs from week to week.
"Whether you get a Welsh referee, French, Scottish or Irish, English or South African, they all have different ways of bringing it into play. Where they come from, and their environment, influences that. You saw that in all our games this year, and every year really."
Jordan appreciates the confusion. "I understand it," he says of the dizzying legal somersaults. "If ERC said they were going to look at interpretations, then we'd look at that because we have six teams in that competition so we'd want to ensure there isn't any chopping and changing.
"But we haven't changed the way we're interpreting things. We're always mindful of the bigger picture and if there is a significant shift we'll have to look at it. Our referee management in the Celtic Unions are in close contact with what's happening at IRB level."
While one might hail as admirable the Magners League bosses' determination to retain some level of stability for its participants, in effect, the players and coaches are as confused as ever.
As another drinks company might have said, it's consistency in a rugby world gone mad.